Will’s Fargo, Carmel Valley, California

Last year I spent a weekend in Carmel and the Carmel Valley and discovered a great western-style vintage steakhouse called Will’s Fargo in sleepy Carmel Valley. Recently the area is becoming more fancy, with wineries and spa hotels, so I encourage you to visit soon while there are still some old places with original charm.

 

photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

 

Will’s Fargo was opened in 1959 by Will Fay in a house built in 1928 by Gordon Armsby of San Francisco and designed by Clarence Tantau (Del Monte Hotel) in Spanish style with Carmel quarried stone walls, Mexican terracotta roof tiles, and a hand-carved wood beamed ceiling. Named Casa Escondida, its guests included Charlie Chaplin and Theda Bara. In 1940 the Holman family bought the house and it served as the bar and steakhouse for Holman’s Guest Ranch, which attracted such celebrity guests as Clark Gable, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford and Marlon Brando, until Will Fay bought it and renamed it Will’s Fargo, decorating it in Victorian Western style. In 2002 the owners of nearby Bernardus Lodge bought Will’s Fargo and thankfully didn’t change much. Then in 2014 the current owner of Holman Ranch, Thomas Lowder, purchased the steakhouse and it’s his intention to keep the interior pretty much the same while updating the menu slightly, but keeping its focus on traditional steakhouse fare (the chef, Jerome Viel, remains after the ownership change).

 

dining room, photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

 

The menu features steaks a la carte, including a Prime Angus top sirloin (my choice when I dined there last year), filet mignon in two sizes, rib eye, Kansas City strip, and a Porterhouse. Why top sirloin for me? In California I often order top sirloin when I see it on the menu because I love its beefy flavor and it’s leaner than a lot of other cuts. Not as tender as a filet, but more flavorful. I also ordered it because it was USDA prime (the most well marbled beef) Angus, which can make a difference.

 

top sirloin, photo by Dean Curtis 2014

top sirloin – photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

 

Steaks don’t come with sides, but are priced below average and several classic sides are available, also at reasonable prices. Other dishes on the menu include chicken, pork, lamb, quail, seafood, pasta, and vegetarian options.

 

the bar, complete with Victorian nude - photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

the bar, complete with Victorian nude – photo by Dean Curtis, 2014

 

If you like vintage motels and are more happy with original charm than new amenities, I highly recommend the Blue Sky Lodge in Carmel Valley. It recently was purchased so I urge you to stay there soon before it changes. From the motel you can walk to Will’s Fargo, some great wineries, and the village of Carmel Valley.

 

Will’s Fargo
16 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924
(831) 659-2774
Open daily at 4:30pm (call for closing hours)

 

Gene & Georgetti, Chicago, Illinois

My favorite steakhouse in a city known for its steakhouses is Gene & Georgetti. It’s a winning combination of history, classic, never-remodeled decor, old-fashioned service, and prime, dry-aged beef. There may be better steaks in town (I don’t know), but I prefer eating a great steak in a classic steakhouse.

 

G&G1 G&G2

 

 

 

 

 

Gene & Georgetti was opened in 1941 by Gene Michelotti and Alfredo Federighi (aka ‘Georgetti’), taking over an Italian restaurant called Vic’s when the owner retired. In the beginning Alfredo was the chef and Gene the bartender. Gene’s welcoming personality led to it becoming a popular steakhouse with local movers-and-shakers, politicians, and celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. When Alfred passed in 1969, Gene became sole owner. That same year Gene’s daughter Marion married Tony Durpetti. When Gene died in 1989 Marion and Tony purchased the restaurant from Gene’s wife Ida, and they still own the restaurant today. Gene and Georgetti has been in the same family for 73 years.

 

bar and front dining area, photo by Zagat.com

bar and front dining room, photo by Zagat.com

 

I love the atmosphere at Gene & Georgetti: dark wood paneling, red and white linen tablecloths, chairs with brass-tacked upholstery, chandeliers, art and photos of celebrities on the walls, Sinatra or Dino playing softly through the PA, and white-jacketed, no-nonsense waiters.

 

mural of old Chicago in dining room - photo by chicagonow.com

mural of c. 1951 Chicago in 2nd floor dining room by owner Tony Durpetti  – photo by chicagonow.com

 

menu

menu

 

The menu (which is a vintage work of art) is classic Italian steakhouse, with a range of appetizers, pastas, steaks & chops, Italian specialties, and seafoood entrees. For an appetizer (or entree) I recommend shrimp DeJonghe, a Chicago specialty of garlicky breaded shrimp, which originated at DeJonghe’s Hotel & Restaurant around the turn of the century. The “Garbage Salad” is famous. It’s an antipasto style iceberg salad that is tossed with a house red wine vinaigrette with a large shrimp on top. As in many midwest eateries the dressing is liberally applied, so if you don’t like salads served that way you may want to order the dressing on the side. The photo below is of the iceberg house salad, not the garbage salad.

 

house salad - photo by Dean Curtis, 2007

house salad – photo by Dean Curtis, 2007

 

Broiled steaks come in four cuts: strip loin (New York), bone-in or boneless, T-bone, bone-in rib eye, and filet mignon, bone-in or boneless. The boneless strip loin and filet mignon come in two sizes. On previous visits I had a bone-in rib eye, which was very large, and excellent. On my visit in 2007 I had a bone-in strip loin. Steaks are priced typically for Chicago, but if you are on a budget they have many entrees under $30 and pastas under $20. They also offer lamb, pork, and veal chops. I love seeing Lyonnaise potatoes on the menu in the Midwest (and at a few West Coast restaurants). They are fried potato slices, like potato chips but thicker.

 

bone-in strip loin - photo by Dean Curtis, 2007

bone-in strip loin with creamed spinach and Lyonnaise potatoes – photo by Dean Curtis, 2007

 

There are many Italian-American dishes on the menu such as veal, chicken, and eggplant parmigiana, veal scalloppine, veal and chicken marsala, and filet Florentine. But I recommend another Chicago specialty, chicken (or veal) Vesuvio, roasted chicken with garlic, olive oil, white wine, parsley, and oregano, served with a generous pile of roasted potatoes. Delicious!

 

The next time you’re in America’s best metropolis (in my opinion), stop in at Chicago’s finest steakhouse, under the El at Franklin and Illinois. Valet parking is complimentary.

Gentlemen, be sure to heed the credo posted in a frame over the bar:

words to live by, framed and hanging over the bar at Gene & Georgetti

words to live by, framed and hanging over the bar at Gene & Georgetti

 

Gene & Georgetti
500 N Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 527-3718
Open Mon-Thu 11am-11pm, Fri & Sat 11am-12 midnight, Sun, opens at 5pm for major conventions.

 

New Year wishes and some reflection…

Thank you from the bottom of my glass for being faithful readers of Le Continental. In 2015 I’ll be posting more about my recent Spain and Ireland trips, as well as about more vintage American restaurants (it seems I’m always remembering ones I still need to post about, especially in Los Angeles, which I’ve barely covered).

But today I would like to reflect on the past year or so. We’ve lost a lot of great classic time-travel restaurants in the past couple of years here in the Bay Area and around the country. In 2013 the greatest local loss, in my opinion, was the closure of Bella Vista, the last true great Continental restaurant in the Bay Area. They had excellent food and service up to the end of their 70 years in business, as well as wonderful vintage atmosphere at a stunning site among the redwoods south of San Francisco with amazing views. I still miss it all the time and there is no substitute in the area.

This year we lost so much (but thankfully got one back already). Closed in January alone: Trader Dick’s in Sparks, Nevada (became a Gilley’s), Joe’s of Westlake in Daly City, CA (sold by the owners to Original Joe’s, to reopen in 2015), and The Big 4 at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco (closed for remodeling by the hotel’s new owners). Thank goodness the Big 4 reopened in May without much altered (mostly new carpets). I’ve recently dined there and can say without reservations that the atmosphere and service have not changed one bit (a good thing). I thought the food was overall a bit better before (a new chef took over this year), but some of their best dishes are still on the menu and as good as ever (the pork chop and lamb shank come highly recommended). But stick with the entrees because the puny appetizers seemed too pricey.

 

Empress of China Bar 1960s

postcard photo of Empress of China bar by Heather David on Flickr

 

Chinatown has not fared well in the recent economic boom in San Francisco. As property values rise to astronomical levels old businesses can no longer afford to operate, or property owners sell while the getting is good. In 2012 divey Chinese restaurant Sam Wo closed after over 100 years of operation. And yesterday was the last day of business for the once-elegant, but sadly worn and almost forgotten in recent years, Empress of China. Faded royalty that closed for a condo development. Its closure got tons of media coverage (strangely, considering it never was very popular before) unlike Tommy Toy’s closure in 2013. Tommy Toy’s was newer (1985) but famous, also a celebrity hangout in its heyday, and was beautifully elegant with reportedly excellent food and service (sadly, I only went once for a cocktail but never dined there).

I loved hitting the Empress’s original 1968 bar for happy hour – too-sweet Mai Tais and greasy appetizers with amazing views of Coit Tower. But as a dining destination I thought the food was overpriced and mediocre, especially compared to so much great Chinese food around the city. And the service was always pretty cold, and sometimes downright rude. Which made it doubly sad to see it close. You could almost see the writing on the wall. Maybe if the food and service were better…. Remember when the Tonga Room almost closed about 5 years ago for a new Fairmont Hotel tower development? I would like to believe that Tiki aficionados, who rallied to save it, prevented its demise, but that wasn’t the case. Even a study of its historic value by the city didn’t save it. What saved it was a lucky break when the city rejected the new tower’s design as inappropriate for the neighborhood. The developer pulled out in the weak economy and the Tonga Room has since experienced a revival. Recently improving their food, cocktails, and service undoubtedly helped. But in today’s economy we may not have been so lucky.

Can increased regular business save these classic places? Perhaps. Maybe if the Empress had improved their food and service while retaining the atmosphere (with a cleaning) more people would have visited over the past 15 years. It seemed to mainly rely on walk-in tourist trade. In the case of Joe’s of Westlake, I don’t think improved food and service would have prevented the owners from selling the restaurant. They decided to sell because they chose to retire and needed the money. Besides, it was usually busy so it didn’t close from lack of business.

I do believe that increased business can help classic restaurants stay open. Maybe not in every case, but it certainly can’t hurt. And if the owner does decide to sell and the restaurant is doing well, the new owner may decide to continue to operate it (like what happened to Joe’s of Westlake), rather than it being torn down for a drug store or Starbucks.

So, my plea, dear readers, is for you to visit the restaurants and bars on these pages, often, before they are threatened. It may save them and certainly can’t hurt. Let’s all make a pledge to visit an old restaurant once a week in 2015. It’s fun to become a regular at places where a veteran waiter cares about the food, service, and its clientele (something lacking at chain restaurants). Why not start a small dining group (or two) that visits a classic, historic restaurant once-a-month or so? I’ve been in such a group for five years and I always look forward to our next adventure in dining.

Happy New Dining Year!

The Jab

 

vintage_new_year

 

Casa Paco, Madrid, Spain

In late November / early December I returned to Spain after ten years. What a country! It’s my personal favorite country, after the dear ol’ United States that is. I love America for its unique cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans (to name just a few), its natural beauty, and of course its restaurants and bars (best on earth). But, back to Spain! I love their joie de vivre, their food and wine, and their way of life (big lunches and late evening socializing at tapas bars into the night). It’s good to be back on Le Continental after a long absence, where I’ll be posting about several historic restaurants and taverns I visited in Spain in the coming weeks.

 

photo by The Jab, 2014

photo by The Jab, 2014

 

Casa Paco on in Madrid was opened in 1933 by Francisco Morales from Guadalajara, Spain. Later the restaurant moved into its current location, a tavern which has existed since 1870. In the 1960s celebrities such as Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, and Marcelo Mastroianni visited the restaurant, as well as bullfighters and politicians. Eventually Francisco’s sons, Paco and Rosario, took over the business. As far as I was able to tell, it seems to be Madrid’s oldest steak house.

 

Casa Paco Madrid 2202521

Casa Paco bar – photo by miniube.com

 

When you enter Casa Paco there is a beautiful small bar, and then a small tiled dining room (see pic below), where I ate my first lunch in Madrid this trip. There are also dining rooms and a kitchen upstairs, so the waiters were running up and down those stairs all day long (they must be in great shape). I made an advance reservation as the restaurant is quite popular. I wrote out what I wanted to say, then translated that into Spanish with Google Translate, practiced it a bit, and called the restaurant from home to make the reservation. I recommend that method over asking that they find someone who speaks English when you call. It seemed to me that because I made the reservation in Spanish I was treated with much respect when I arrived for my lunch.

 

Casa Paco Madrid 2202511

Casa Paco dining room – photo by miniube.com

 

olivesI started with an appetizer of acietunas (olives), always great in Spain (often free), and a beer.

 

 

 

 

Then I had a specialty of Madrid and environs: sopa de ajo (garlic soup). Delicious!

 

sopa de ajo

 

Casa Paco specializes in steaks. They offer three cuts: a tenderloin of beef (cebón de buey), veal (ternera) from Avila, and a sirloin of beef (solomillo de buey), each ordered by weight. Note: sirloin in European butchery is a more tender cut than the sirloin you see offered in the U.S. It is basically the entire part of the loin below the strip loin (New York steak). Of the Euro sirloin the thickest part is the chateaubriand, the middle is the tournedos, and the thinner end is the filet mignon (in the U.S. this term is often used also for the thicker part of the sirloin) or tenderloin. Also note: sometimes buey translates as oxen (an adult castrated male cattle), sometimes just as beef.

A media kilo in Spanish is over one pound of meat. I tried to order a tenderloin filet of 500 grams (about 8 oz.), but I think my lack of Spanish resulted in a much bigger cut (which was OK with me). At Casa Paco the tenderloin and veal cost 40 euros per kilo, while the sirloin is 50 euros per kilo. Medium rare is called poco hecha in Spanish. I thought i ordered my steak medium rare but it ended up rare (again, fine with me when it comes to the tenderloin).

 

tenderloin of beef - photo by The Jab

tenderloin of beef – photo by The Jab

 

photo by The Jab

tender and tasty! – photo by The Jab

When your steak comes to the table at Casa Paco it arrives loudly sizzling on a scalding-hot plate, which is then placed on a cork mat with a warning of “¡muy caliente!”. Interestingly, the steaks are cooked over a coal fire, so they acquire a reddish-brown crust and not a dark brown one. The steak continues to sizzle on the plate while you eat it. Cold steak doesn’t happen here!

 

 

With my steak I had pisto Manchego, a ratatouille La Mancha style with eggplant, peppers, and onions, and really good, crispy French fries. I tend to order too much in places like this because I want to try all the regional dishes! But since I didn’t have dinner, just tapas at night, it was good to have a big lunch in the Spanish way. To drink with my steak I had a glass of Ribero del Duero red wine.

 

photo by The Jab, 2014

photo by The Jab, 2014

 

Casa Paco
Plaza de Puerta Cerrada, 11, 28005 Madrid, Spain
phone: +34913663166
Open for lunch Mon-Sun 1:00pm-4:00pm, dinner Mon-Sat 4:00pm-12:00am (no dinner on Sunday)

 

Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant, Valley Glen, California

The story about Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant, still owned by the Monteleone family (since 1950), is actually a story of three restaurants. Two are now history, but the story has a happy ending.

 

photo by baronesfamousitalian.com

photo by baronesfamousitalian.com

 

The original Barone’s restaurant was opened in 1945 at Beverly Glen and Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks by Tony and Frank Arpaia, Jerry and Josephine Barone, and Joe Izzo. It quickly became popular so had to move into a larger building at 14151 Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks (where it remained until 2006). In 1950 more members of the extended family, Frank (Josephine’s brother) and Mary Monteleone joined in the business. According to Frank Monteleone‘s son Tom, who now runs the restaurant, the Dead End Kids would come in all the time to eat after a day’s work filming (Lucille Ball, John Wayne, and Jane Russell were also regulars). One day they asked why Barone’s didn’t serve pizza. The owners told them they didn’t know how to make pizza because they were from Buffalo. The Dead End Kids showed them how to make a good sauce and a New York style thin-crust, but the restaurant didn’t have mozzarella so they used Monterey Jack cheese. The Jack came in square blocks, so they made a rectangular pizza covered with square slices of jack cheese. It was the first rectangular Neapolitan style pizza in California and to this day the restaurant still makes the pizza the same way, with Monterey Jack cheese.

 

Barone's, Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks - photo by city-data.com

Barone’s, Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks – photo by city-data.com

 

The second restaurant involved in the story of Barone’s is a German restaurant, Hoppe’s Old Heidelberg, which opened in 1958 at 13726 Oxnard St. in Van Nuys (now Valley Glen). Old Heidelberg was decorated with modern stained glass windows to filter out the light, dark carved wood walls, deep red leather booths, and Teutonic bric-à-brac. The waitresses wore dirndls. After over 36 years of serving German specialties, it was purchased by award-winning Swiss chef Ueli Huegli, who came with experience from a long list of European and Southern California restaurants. He renamed it Matterhorn Chef (the third restaurant in our story) and added Swiss dishes to the menu.

 

Barone's dining room - photo by The Jab, 2013

Barone’s dining room – photo by The Jab, 2013

 

In 2006 the Matterhorn Chef closed. Barone’s moved out of the Ventura Blvd. location and into its space on Oxnard St. So when you go to Barone’s today you are actually in the original Hoppe’s Old Heidelberg, which thankfully has not changed much since 1958! Perhaps the German/Swiss decor was replaced with Italian paintings but the red booths, woodwork, and stained glass windows are all intact (the lighting is newer). I went once to the Barone’s location on Ventura Blvd before it moved and I admit that I like the “new” Old Heidelberg/Matterhorn Chef/Barone’s space better. Good news for Matterhorn Chef fans came in 2010 when Ueli Huegli opened a new restaurant in Valley Glen called Swiss Chef, with many of the famous dishes that were on the menu at Matterhorn Chef.

 

arty stained glass windows at Barone's - photo by The Jab, 2013

arty stained glass windows at Barone’s – photo by The Jab, 2013

 

The menu is long at Barone’s, with pizza, Italian specialties, and steaks. I had the “famous” New York pepper steak (USDA Choice grain-fed, aged 21-days), which was good as I recall. But you really should try the pizza because that is what they are famous for. Barone’s has long been famous for its old school entertainment, and the tradition continues every Friday and Saturday night after 8:30, when performers playing jazz, standards, and oldies get people of all ages in the bar cuttin’ a rug on the dance floor. It’s a lively scene I experienced back when I visited the old Sherman Oaks location and again in 2013 at the Valley Glen Barone’s.

 

scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High filmed at Old Heidelburg (now Barone's)

scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High filmed at Old Heidelburg (now Barone’s)

 

You may recall a funny scene in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (one of my top-ten favorite 80s films), where Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) and Stacey Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) had a date, but Rat forgot to bring his wallet. That scene was filmed at Old Heidelberg (now Barone’s). You can clearly see the red booths and stained glass in the above still (I think this is the same room that I snapped a photo of but looking towards the front of the restaurant instead of the back). Too bad the high-backed leather chairs are gone today (though similar ones are still used at The Imperial House In San Diego and at the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga). The restaurant has been used in other films as well.

 

Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant
13726 Oxnard St, Los Angeles, CA 91401
818-782-6004
Open daily at 11:00am, lunch served Mon-Fri 11:00am-3:00pm, dinner Mon-Thu until 9:30pm, Fri-Sat until 11:30pm, Sun until 9:00pm
Live entertainment Friday and Saturday 8:30pm-12:30am